From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)

from-dusk-till-dawn-03

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Criminals Seth and Richie Gecko force a family to smuggle them across the border into Mexico, where they all end up in a bar run by vampires…

What does QT do? Working on From Dusk Till Dawn in about 1990 was Quentin Tarantino’s first paid scriptwriting job. It was a commission from Robert Kurtzman, a special-effects designer who wanted a project to showcase his new company’s talents. (Kurtzman gets a ‘story by’ credit.) It took a few years for the film to go into production, by which time Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez had been hired as director. He convinced Quentin to play the part of Richie Gecko. Creepy and committed, it’s – by some distance – the best acting performance of his career.

Notable characters:
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is a cop who stops at a liquor store in the first scene to shoot the breeze and use the toilet. The part was written for the actor, making use of his slow-talking cadences and world-weary manner.
* Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) is the guy working in the liquor store. Unbeknown to McGraw, Pete is actually in the middle of being held up by two criminals. It’s a great opening scene. It’s not about what you think it’s about, but is still feeding us important information. There’s then sudden violence, black comedy, flames and gunfire, and it ends on a grandstanding shot of the brothers arguing as they walk away from an exploding building.
* Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is a bank robber who works with his brother, Seth. As the story begins they’re on the run, having stolen a chunk of money, kidnapped a bank teller, and killed a few cops and bystanders. Clooney was then a TV actor but is filmed here like a movie star; he often dominates the frame. It’s a terrifically cool performance, full of vim and swagger.
* Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) is the less levelheaded, more psychotic half of the team. He rapes and kills one hostage, then hallucinates that another is coming on to him. Later, when the characters reach a bar called the Titty Twister, he’s turned into a vampire.
* Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) is the bank teller, who we first see tied up in the Geckos’ car boot.
* Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a pastor who’s going through a crisis of faith, having recently lost his wife in a car accident. He’s on a road-trip holiday with his two kids, driving a Winnebago around the country, when the Geckos take them prisoner.
* Scott Fuller (Ernest Liu) is Jacob’s adopted son, who likes playing guitar.
* Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis) is Jacob’s teenage daughter who goes through an awful lot of trauma in the story… and seems to take most of it in her stride!
* Kelly Houge (Kelly Preston) is a TV news reporter who fills us in on he Geckos’ recent crimes, complete with on-screen tallies of how many people they’ve killed. She also interviews an FBI agent played by John Saxon.
* Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) has three discrete cameos in the film. (Why? Just because.) He first appears as a customs official at the US-Mexico border, then as the guy advertising all the different types of pussy available at the Titty Twister, then finally as Carlos, Seth’s contact who shows up after all the carnage.
* Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) is the Titty Twister’s vampiric barman.
* Sex Machine (Tom Savini) is a customer at the bar who joins forces with Seth, Jacob and the others once the vampires attack. He’s generally a comic-relief character with some good gags (and a pop-up gun hidden in his groin).
* Frost (Fred Williamson) is another patron who’s caught up in the chaos. His set-piece scene involves telling an earnest anecdote about Vietnam, which acts as a distraction while Sex Machine comically turns into a vamp.
* Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is a dancer at the bar who performs a *spectacularly* sexy routine, which brings the entire room to a standstill… right before she turns into a monster and starts eating people.

Returning actors: Juliette Lewis was one of the stars of Natural Born Killers. Quentin had recently directed George Clooney in an episode of ER. This is Harvey Keitel’s third Tarantino role. Marc Lawrence (who cameos as a motel manager) and Salma Hayek had been in Four Rooms, though not in Tarantino’s section of the film. Brenda Hillhouse was in Pulp Fiction and ER: Motherhood. This is the fourth time Quentin’s played one of his own characters, but it’s the only time he’s done it while being directed by someone else.

Music: The source songs, a mixture of Tex-Mex, blues and country-and-western, are well chosen. Especially effective are the down-and-dirty Dark Night (The Blasters) for the title sequence and the sultry After Dark (Tito & Tarantula) for Santánico’s dance. (Tito & Tarantula actually appear on-screen as the bar’s in-house band.) The bespoke score is written by Graeme Revell but often gets swamped in the sound mix.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is in chronological order, playing out across 24 hours or so. Like in Reservoir Dogs, the robbery that kicks off the plot is not dramatised.

Connections: Deep breath… A few months after From Dusk Till Dawn, a Tarantino-produced movie called Curdled was released. The Gecko brothers are mentioned in the story (we also see photos of them) while Kelly Preston reprises her From Dusk character in a cameo. More interestingly, From Dusk Till Dawn later spawned two straight-to-video sequels and a spin-off TV series. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) was directed by Scott Spiegel. It’s an inventively shot heist movie and is good, schlocky fun. It was followed a year later by From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by PJ Pesce, which is actually a prequel to the original; set 100 years earlier, it enjoyably mixes Western and horror conventions. Then, in 2014, a television adaptation of the original film began on cable channel El-Ray. Currently on its third season, it features an all-new cast and expands the movie’s plot in interesting ways. (Oh, and just to be thorough: a documentary film called Full Tilt Boogie (1997) was made about the production of From Dusk Till Dawn. It mixes footage of the actors larking about with coverage of the producers’ dispute with a labour union. There’s a huge amount of hubris on show, but the film also has sequences focusing on likeable crewmembers.)

Review: Partly a road movie, partly a crime film, party a horror and increasingly a comedy, From Dusk Till Dawn has a lot of different tones to balance. So much so, in fact, that even on repeat viewings you forget where the story is heading. It’s not until the 59th minute that something supernatural happens, and the first half of the film is so slick and well written that – whisper it quietly – it’s actually a disappointment when the vampires attack. The early scenes of Seth, Richie and the Fullers contain some terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour. It’s brilliant stuff. However, in the second half, the character work is mostly forgotten about in favour of Grand Guignol. When the characters arrive at the Titty Twister, the bar is surrounded by flames and neon lights: it’s like the characters are descending into hell. The movie is now all about blood, impalings, severed heads and limbs, and inventive ways of killing vampires. There are lots of effects on show, mostly practical or prosthetic but also some CG, and also a shift towards tongue-in-cheek comedy. It reminds you of, say, Evil Dead II or Bad Taste (both 1987). The film is still entertaining, but frankly the two halves of the story don’t especially marry up. Was the comedic influence from director Robert Rodriguez (who later made the very silly Spy Kids films)? This is such a difficult film for me to score. It has issues, but because the first half is so strong my heart says ten. However, my head says…

Eight psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are, out of 10

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Star Trek: First Contact (1996, Jonathan Frakes)

FirstContact

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the Borg go back in time and change Earth’s history, the crew of the Enterprise must follow them to 2063 to put things right…

Regulars: Picard dreams about the Borg before he hears they’re invading Federation space – he was assimilated by them a few years earlier and is haunted by his experiences. He disobeys orders and heads to Earth when it’s threatened, and when the Borg have taken over the Enterprise he kills a captured crewmember out of mercy. Lily, a woman from 2063, accuses him – rightly – of being a hypocrite for wanting revenge. Riker searches for famous historical figure Zefram Cochrane, and almost always has a wry grin on his face. Data deactivates his emotion chip from the last film when he gets scared – Picard says he envies him this ability – but the Borg switch it back on when they capture him. Worf isn’t part of the crew any more: since the last film, the character had joined spin-off TV show Deep Space Nine. But he gets beamed aboard the Enterprise early on, then later helps Picard destroy the ship’s deflector dish. Troi tracks down Cochrane, and gets drunk with him and has to swat aside his advances. (She then goes missing from the story for an oddly long time.) Crusher gets plenty of medical stuff to do: she goes down to Earth on the recce and takes an injured Lily to sickbay, and later activates the Emergency Medical Holographic doctor (in part, a reference to Star Trek: Voyager) in order to cause a diversion. Geordie, meanwhile, isn’t wearing his visor any more – he’s had cybernetic ocular implants since we last saw him. Astonishingly, no comparison or thematic rhyming is made of the fact that a regular crewmember has bionic eyes and this is a story about the Borg.

Guests: Cochran is played by James Cromwell, who I’ll always be fond of because he’s in my favourite film, LA Confidential. Alfre Woodard adds energy and humour as Lily. Alice Krige plays the Borg Queen. Neal McDonough plays doomed helmsman Lt Hawk. Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo and The Next Generation’s Dwight Schultz cameo as the EMH and Reg Barclay respectively.

Best bits:

* The opening shot: a very long pull back from Picard’s eyeball to the massive Borg ship he’s aboard.

* The old dream-within-a-dream trick from An American Werewolf in London.

* “Tough little ship,” Riker says of the Defiant. “Little?!” Worf replies indignantly.

* The Borg have assimilated the Earth!

* Picard lovingly touching the rocket ship he will later worship in a museum – and trying to explain to Data why tactile contact can be so evocative.

* Troi gets drunk. “This is no time to argue about time. We don’t have the time!”

* “And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?” Zefram wins the wankiest-reference competition.

* Picard notices that the phaser Lily stole and pointed at him was on its highest setting and could have killed him. “It’s my first ray gun,” she says meekly.

* The Borg Queen’s head and shoulders being lowered onto her torso while she chats away to Data.

* Reg Barclay’s excited fan-boy moment as he meets his hero Zefram.

* The space-walk sequence and the subsequent fight on the hull of the ship.

* Riker: “Someone once said, ‘Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man and let history make its own judgement.’” Zefram: “Rhetorical nonsense. Who said that?” All together now: “You did, 10 years from now.”

* Picard calling Worf a coward.

* Troi’s stentorious countdown to liftoff is interrupted by Zefram putting on some loud music (Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride).

* Data was only pretending to be assimilated!

* Zefram’s scream as he travels at warp for the first time.

* The actual first contact – a ship lands, a Vulcan gets off, Zefram shakes his hand. (Shame the gathered extras seems so underwhelmed by what they’re witnessing.)

* Zefram introducing the Vulcans to rock’n’roll.

TV tie-in: The character of Zefram Cochrane first appeared in a decent episode of the original Star Trek TV series called Metamorphosis. In it, Captain Kirk and his colleagues discover a 237-year-old Cochrane stranded on a planet where a strange entity called the Companion has rejuvenated him so he appears to be 35. (Although meant to be the same man, the Cochrane from First Contract looks and behaves nothing like this incarnation.)

Review: Well, it doesn’t hang about. But whereas the best Star Trek movies are enjoyably pacey, this is just rushed. There’s also a sense that the film is being made for established fans. It’s assumed we know who everyone is, there are quite a few continuity references, and we must recall vital details of a TV episode from 1990. Not only that, the storytelling is generally pretty shoddy. Key conversations seem to get skipped over (we don’t get to see Zefram being told the crew are from the future, for example). A bizarre holodeck sequence comes out of nowhere. Jokes stick out incongruously. We get little sense of Zefram and Lily’s relationship – and they’re the only 21st-century people we meet. Sadly it’s all a bit undercooked, like they filmed an early draft of the script. The bulk of the movie is split between a fun enough but leisurely story with Zefram and a boring Die Hard pastiche aboard the Enterprise. The two halves run parallel yet are unconnected: neither half’s characters seem to care what’s happening in the other story. There’s crash, bang and wallop, but little of it means anything.

Six Moby Dick quotations out of 10.

Anthology 1 (1995)/Anthology 2 (1996)/Anthology 3 (1996)

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Title: Apt enough. This is a three-volume chronological collection of pre-fame recordings, alternate takes, variant mixes, live performances, TV appearances and interviews. The first two releases were headlined by new Beatles songs, created by Paul, George and Ringo playing along to John Lennon demos from the 1970s. (Plans for a third ‘Threetles’ track, Now and Then, fell through when George got cold feet.)

Covers: Sumptuous artwork from Klaus Voormann, which combines images from throughout the Beatles’ career into a collage of poster fragments. The complete piece smartly divides into thirds for each individual album cover.

Best song:

* The best ‘song’ on the first volume is actually a clip from the Beatles’ appearance on Morecambe & Wise’s ITV show Two of a Kind in 1963. It’s stunningly likeable – a meeting of popular-culture giants, who are all on fantastic form and clearly loving the experience. Watching the clip is even better than hearing it. The *priceless* comedy banter begins at the seven-minute mark:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysfvM9uhFdg

* On volume two, the best bit is John’s home recording of an embryonic Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s so stark and delicate.

* On volume three, I love the *joyful* rehearsal of Oh! Darling with Paul and John having a whale of a time with the vocals.

Honourable mentions:

* The two ‘new’ Beatles songs – mid-tempo rock ballads Free As a Bird and Real Love – are diverting enough, though the old joke that producer Jeff Lynne spent the 1970s making ELO sound like the Beatles, and the 1990s making the Beatles sound like ELO, is funny because it’s true. Free As a Bird has a fantastic video, while Real Love is currently being covered by Tom Odell for a TV advert. Elsewhere, the quality, quantity and variety of alternate and unreleased studio recordings are astonishing.

* On volume one, I especially like: an early take of You Can’t Do That; some experimentation with I’ll Be Back; an unused George Harrison song called You Know What To Do; a terrific demo of No Reply; an outtake of Lennon mucking up Mr Moonlight’s vocal; and Eight Days a Week with a killer intro that was later abandoned.

* Volume two’s highlights include: some entertaining banter before a take of You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away; two songs recorded in February 1965 that were then both shelved (the turgid If You’ve Got Trouble, sung by Ringo, and Paul’s rather good That Means A Lot); John and Paul giggling through And Your Bird Can Sing; a rehearsal jam of I’m Only Sleeping; early takes of Strawberry Fields Forever; a composite of early attempts at A Day In The Life; and the basic track of I Am the Walrus. There’s also a raft of first takes: Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, I’m Looking Through You, Tomorrow Never Knows, I’m Only Sleeping and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite! – all absolutely fascinating.

* Anthology 3’s best bits include: seven demos recorded at George’s house in May 1968 when the Beatles had returned from a long holiday in India; a cool-as-fuck early take of Helter Skelter; a good alternate version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da; take four of Blackbird; George demoing While My Guitar Gently Weeps; John and Paul busking in the studio and making a song up on the spot (a spoof polka track called Los Paranoias); a few decent cuts from the Let It Be sessions; George’s demo of All Things Must Pass (he later recorded it for a solo LP); Paul’s multi-instrumental demo of Come and Get It (whether intended for Abbey Road or to give to another band is unknown; in the event, the latter happened); and a beautiful a cappella version of Because.

Worst songs: Volume one features spoken-word clips between the songs, an idea that was then wisely dropped. On Anthology 2, we could do without 12-Bar Original, a derivative song the Beatles recorded in 1965 then forgot about. The album was, allegedly, originally going to contain this song. However, George vetoed its inclusion, so it was replaced with some backing tracks of Eleanor Rigby and Within You Without You. Unreleased at the time, What’s the New Mary Jane (written by John and recorded in 1968) was long considered the Holy Grail of Beatles recordings – on Anthology 3, we can all hear what self-indulgent rot it is.

Notable outside contributions: Early bassist Stuart Sutcliffe appears on a few tracks, as does sacked drummer Pete Best. (The take of Love Me Do the latter plays on from the group’s first EMI session shows why he was replaced by Ringo: it goes out of time.) Tony Sheridan, who the Beatles worked with the Hamburg, sings lead vocal on My Bonnie.

Review: When these albums came out, I devoured them – barely a week went by without me listening to them. But before #BeatlesReview, I hadn’t heard them for donkey’s years, so it was great fun to familarise myself again. A bit like the BBC albums, they’re interesting rather than entertaining – but they’re very, very interesting. The accompanying TV series, by the way, is my all-time favourite documentary. It was shown on ITV in 1995, then later a much longer edit was released on VHS and DVD, and it tells the history of the band from childhood to split. While clearly biased – being the official Beatles story, it pulls its punches when it comes to drugs, arguments, failed projects and the breakup – the power of the storytelling is immense. The three living Beatles gave wide-ranging and (mostly) frank interviews, while Lennon is represented by archive material. A huge trove of fantastic footage is cleverly arranged and juxtaposed; we get full-length performances of most key songs; and there’s no authoritative voiceover or presenter – the whole thing zips along confidently and engrossingly.

Eight lives that we once knew out of 10.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo

Written by Joel and Ethan; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Desperate for cash, car salesman Jerry Lundegaard arranges for two criminals to kidnap his wife so they can split the ransom money from her rich father. Things don’t go to plan.

Seen before? Yes, on VHS when it came out and a few times since.

Best performance: Frances McDormand won an Oscar for playing police officer Marge Gunderson. Quite right too. She’s ace.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): As well as Frances McDormand (4), we get Steve Buscemi (4) and Peter Stormare (1) as kidnappers Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, while Bruce Campbell (2) plays a TV soap actor.

Best bit: How can I choose just one?! How about heavily pregnant Marge leaning over, hands on knees, to look closely at a snow-covered crime scene? “You see something down there, Chief?” asks her colleague. “No,” she replies, “I just think I’m gonna barf!”

Review: Absolutely brilliant. This is my favourite Coen Brothers movie (unless one of the six I still haven’t seen usurps it, of course). It’s a conventional crime plot – kidnap goes wrong – but with so many surprise kinks in the storytelling that it’s constantly entertaining. The cast, especially William H Macy and Frances McDormand, are fantastic: quirky yet believable. The Scandinavian-accented milieu, meanwhile, is so interesting that frankly anything could be going on and it would be watchable. The script is full of telling details, such as Marge’s pregnancy, which most thrillers wouldn’t even consider but give the whole film a unique tone and vibrancy. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny – occasionally slapstick, but usually macabre – while melancholy is never far away either. I could watch it over and over.

Ten wood-chippers out of 10.